Friday, January 31, 2003

instantET: The "Entertainment Tonight" TV show is offering a new Windows executable which sits in your desktop tray, and which retrieves data from the net when activated. They use SWF on their site, but use native-code for this type of constant desktop presence. Features include headline news with links to full-text and video-enhanced representations (presumably browser-based). There's a "tell a friend" button. I'd be interested in hearing comments about similar implementations you've seen, successes or failures of this approach, client concerns, etc. Thanks!
[via CNET]
Super Bowl Ads This NBC station in San Jose offers a SWF-based viewing/voting application for ads which aired during last week's SuperBowl. They have converted the Budweisert Clydesdales, the Osborne/Osmond Twist, The Hulk, more.The SWF video looks quite good. (UI tip: Once you choose an ad, you have to explicitly "play" to start... there's no auto-start upon choice.)
Related: Advertiser websites apparently got very heavy traffic during the game... I've seen a number of articles which comment on how many people were apparently using TV and computer simultaneously. "All those sites were reported to be functioning well, while other advertisers were not so lucky. The Hulk might be powerful, but his servers' strength is apparently more along the lines of Bruce Banner's. According to Web performance measurement firm Keynote Systems, the Hulk's Web site wobbled under a deluge of visits during the game, which featured an advertisement for the upcoming Universal Pictures movie. Keynote said the site's response time slowed to 20 seconds, while its availability dipped as low as 90 percent."
Sportsline shows profit: Everyday sports fans are accepting the value in paying for things from the web. I think this movement is a significant indicator for other types of sites as well.
Level 10 site analysis display: Great example of drill-down data visualization. It's fast because the Flash stays on your desktop, and only the data needs to be transferred when you request a different view. (Site-analysis visualization in HTML requires that the page's chrome and logic be transmitted along with the data.) Scott tipped me off to this yesterday, but I wasn't able to connect at first -- I'm not sure if this site is fully live yet, but it's worth checking out how efficient and deep their data interface is.
[via Scott Manning]
David Heller on apps vs docs: The article is a clear overview of various ways of constructing web applications, and he notes pro/con with HTML, Flash, Curl, Java, more. He notes (in different words) how DHTML blends data and presentation and clientside logic, and that applications would need to test the capabilities of each rendering sub-engine. One of Flash's current disadvantages is that the authoring environment serves too many needs -- programmers shouldn't need to wade through an animation UI. (Although I've seen components in heavy use in the ColdFusion community.)

Where it gets really interesting is the comments. Some bring up the strong point that browser-based apps and standalone apps have very different privacy, security, and personalization concerns. It gets off into a few rambles. The biggest surprise for me was seeing that Adobe Herasimchuk is back at Adobe, with lines like "Flash is purely a distraction" and accusing others of trollbait... he's certainly some character! I've printed out the comments and will read them on the bus tonight... I want to make sure that I get to the gut of the issue rather than get pulled off into silly side-issues. David has a good analysis, and the comments contain pearls too -- recommended.
[via Chris MacGregor]
Net overtakes TV: This Associated Press story on a UCLA study is in wide syndication today, but I haven't seen the original study yet. From what I can tell researchers asked 2000 US "internet users" "Do you consider X to be an important information source?" About 60% said yes to internet, books and newspapers... 50% said yes to TV... 40% radio... 30% magazines. The more that an individual used the net the higher they tended to rate it. 30% "never" used the net, but half of these said they planned to this year. The best part of the study is that fewer people "believe what they read online"... with the ease of anyone publishing anything, more people are realizing that they have to think "the news" through for themselves. There's still a lot of credulity, though, and I'm not sure of similar numbers for TV and newspapers. Of course, we've got to look at the study to see if the reporter got it right.... ;-)

Thursday, January 30, 2003

Details on Microsoft smart watches: They apparently tap into local weather, sports and news by processing data in a specially-leased FM subcarrier signal.Throughput is slow but continuous, about 125 megabytes per day. The filtering seems odd to me, though... you go to a site and set your preferences, keyed to a unique ID in your own watch. The FM data includes tags saying which watch should listen to the next chunk. This is non-local... apparently if you go to another town your tags are in the transmissions there too. If they get billions of customers, won't they spend a lot of transmission time sending tags? I must be missing something, it makes so much more sense to store the filtering in the client rather than in the transmission...!?
The answer is "wmode": I saw long rambling discussions on three different mailing lists today, with people wanting to layer plugin content in a web page. This has been coming up regularly since IE3/Win introduced windowless controls, but it remains a hot topic online because: (a) it's hard to search on the concept (what search engine terms would you use?); and (b) the browser-exceptions frequently trip people up. Recap: The ability for a browser plugin to have transparent background or be overlaid with other HTML depends on both the browser and the plugin. The Macromedia Flash Player is one of the few to offer it. IE/Win has for a long time the only browser to offer it, but with current versions you can now also do it in Mozilla on Mac and Win, and current IE/MacOsX. More info's available by searching on "wmode", but this is a hard thing to anticipate before you know what the answer is.... ;-)
Jon Udell on HTML/JS transactions: He tried to use Amtrak's website, and describes trying to second-guess the application to figure what it was trying to achieve, but he lost his user-state, he lost his context, regardless. He acknowledges stateless applications like Broadmoor, but wonders whether HTML/JS applications can still be improved to "suck less". (Go up a level to see subsequent comment this week.)
Apache Axis, Macromedia: This InfoWorld "Technology of the Year: Open Source" article mentioned Glen Daniels: "Notable Axis adopters in 2002 included Macromedia, whose ColdFusion MX made Web services accessible to CFML (ColdFusion Markup Language) developers. Macromedia's Glen Daniels became a major contributor to Axis, and Sam Ruby credits him with key architectural and performance enhancements." There are other mentions on the main page.
[via John Udell]
Flash Remoting and PHP: Sean Corfield points to a discussion on taking advantage of Flash Remoting's efficiency if you're using a PHP backend. (Flash Remoting is included with ColdFusion MX and JRun 4, and there are also modules available for .NET or other Java backends.) Sean also offers tips on implementation. We haven't officially tested this in the shop, particularly across the range of PHP configurations, but if this combo would be of use to you then check into this community research.
Arul's Quick Blog Viewer: Clever way to navigate large masses of content. R. Arul Kumaran's blog is chronologically ordered, in the usual way. But individual entries are also distilled into an external XML file with added categorization.This enables a three-pane in-page SWF navigator: choose a category, then choose a post in that category, view the first few lines and choose whether you wish to see the whole article.Think "NNTP newsreader embedded in an HTML page"... similar efficient UI, but as a component rather than a standalone. Good stuff. 8)
Director for Flash users: Michael Kay has five pages in WebMonkey itemizing what advantages and what orientation you can expect when adding Director capabilities to your personal skillset. The big thing I'd add is that half of consumers tested by Media Metrix in December could immediately see realtime 3D in their browsers through Shockwave -- it's an extremely popular web player. "Sholud every Flash developer and Web designer run out and purchase Director MX today? At US$1,199 a pop, I'm not saying that. But if budget allows, and your next project has graduated past the abilities of Flash, Director MX could be the answer."
Driving Director: In a thread "'Real world' Director applications" there are tons of citations of projects people have done, and I haven't clicked through them all yet -- Paul Davies does some interactive procedural 3D geometry, and you can see a still shot here -- Ryan Sabir pointed out that all licensed drivers in New South Wales must pass the Hazard Perception Test, a Director kiosk -- Chris Holmes points out that Melbourne's Citylink system handles 15,000 realtime/realworld inputs for traffic management. The thread diverges a bit into which browsers offer Secure Socket Layer encryption to plugins, but there are some great links to heavy multimedia work here too.

Java Pro op/ed on MS/MM: This print editorial is getting renewed play on the mailing lists today... I've seen links to it spread by people with names, and by anonymous posters, and I don't know how far they're spreading it. Folks, read the durn article... Kay Keppler doesn't cite any source material, and that issue is already on the newsstands so I suspect her sole inspiration was that mega-debunked rumor in The Register in December. If you see an article, read it, and think for yourself -- don't just parrot what some reporter feeds you. Examine the article's nutrient content. sheesh, now I know how how Proctor & Gamble felt....
"Programmer" guide: That essay by Robert Read that I referenced yesterday is actually quite good, and I'd commend it to your attention. I'm about halfway through it, and though the prologue is wordy, he concisely covers a lot of practical ground in different areas: testing work, estimating time, working with a group, managing expectations, learning things. It's always good to review the basics in hopes of getting a new slant on things, and this is also a great bookmark for colleagues... check it out!
"Predict my viewership": This Evolt post ("need Flash stats for each country in Europe") and reply, points to a recurring concern... people often seek predictive value for an individual site from general stats. Those quarterly MediaMetrix consumer audits are great for showing overall trends, but you can't directly extrapolate from that to a particular site. The only way to know how technologically current a particular site's audience is would be to test that particular audience.

Wednesday, January 29, 2003

New Architect: Offshore Outsourcing Neil McAllister offers an overview of things to consider if you have any part in a long-distance development effort. The article is anecdotal -- there was one particular project which failed, others which succeeded -- but he seems to draw on these anecdotes as illustrations of principles, rather than as statistical proofs. I really like having people all over the world working together, but not all projects require the same solution, so getting a good fit is key. "'If you're looking at any of the cutting-edge technologies, the price differences aren't as great anymore. It's just supply and demand at that point' ... 'A domestic team will beat an offshore team, schedule-wise, almost every time' ... 'You don't have meetings and conference calls. You do design review on paper, and send emails back and forth'"
VLIGHT Flash/MIDI interface: Interesting, they apparently communicate between external drivers and the Player through a socket-server interface. The MIDI component is apparently PC-only, but a socket-based approach seems generalizable to multiple platforms. They talk of MIDI inputs to a SWF presentation (ie, external music drives the visuals)... I wonder if they've worked with triggering external events through interactive animation. Looks good!
Anarchist torture chambers: This isn't MX-related, and I don't remember what linked me here, but it's a fascinating article in The Guardian UK about the psychological tricks used against Franco forces during the Spanish Civil War. "Beds were placed at a 20 degree angle, making them near-impossible to sleep on, and the floors of the 6ft by 3ft cells was scattered with bricks and other geometric blocks to prevent prisoners from walking backwards and forwards... The only option left to prisoners was staring at the walls, which were curved and covered with mind-altering patterns of cubes, squares, straight lines and spirals which utilised tricks of colour, perspective and scale to cause mental confusion and distress." An anti-usability primer...?
Reputation systems: This post by Howard Rheingold points to two ongoing systems which try to assess individual value in a community. If you frequent a mailing list or newsgroup, you already have a sense of whose posts you will skim, and whose you will study. Advogato (mission statement, trust metric) and Affero (background, tour) seem to attempt to quantify these impressions -- to set up a currency for reputation. I haven't studied either yet, but have bookmarked these here for later investigation... if you're reading this and have info on this or similar symptoms then I'd appreciate hearing, thanks.
[via Cory Doctorow]
"How to be a programmer:" This is a 40-page PDF essay from Robert Read. "I have attempted to summarize as concisely as possible those things that I wish someone had explained to me when I was twenty-one... Debugging is the cornerstone of being a programmer. The first meaning of the word to remove errors, but the meaning that matters is to see into the execution of a program by examining it... beginners have to learn to poke at the code to make it jump." I've skimmed it, and he seems to hit good topics, although it might be on the wordy side... have printed it out for the bus ride home.
[via Slashdot]
Dealing with difficult clients: Patrick Andrews offers a short taxonomy and set of tips at seems practical, effective.
Long-video experiences in SWF: Guy Bowden starts by noting that the Macromedia Flash Player 6 is now the most common video format among consumers, and wonders about streaming hosts. "Mat" points to documentation about length concerns. Serge Jespers notes successful commercial use of six-minute segments, and points out that Sorenson Squeeze can do segmentation as well. Luke Bayes offers a whole passle of video observations. Summary: This codec is small and ubiquitous, but it doesn't do everything the system-level video architectures do. For things beyond short segments, please test carefully before committing. Watch your bandwidth too... delivering large pictures, or audio, or video can add to your hosting bills.
"Why use Flash?" Good thread at FlashCoders... Ted Lehr starts off with a coworker saying "Flash is only good for animations"... many respond with specific positives, but "jgl" hits that killer point of "First look at what they need... push solutions, not just capabilities". Luke Bayes concurs, and "Steven at Roundbox" points to the validity of basic sales techniques. Troy Gardner then goes into why Presedia moved to Flash from Java. I think the conversation then splits off into other threads about Java practicalities and download sizes. My big takeaway: Don't focus on the technology first. Look really hard at the problem and see what the audience needs. After that it's easier to choose the most appropriate technology.
Using Contribute on a GoLive site: This thread from the GoLive list discusses experiences with using Macromedia Contribute to edit content on sites created with Adobe GoLive. Basically, it just works. GoLive's new template structure resembles that of Dreamweaver 4, so you can get basic locked areas in a page. Results should be similar for a FrontPage site, although FrontPage doesn't follow this template scheme and so won't have locking or repeating regions.
FLY GUY: This SWF was apparently a holiday piece from Trevor Van Meter and Jason Krogh... it got positive mention on one of the Director lists and I can see why, it's just plain, sweet fun.
Social Insecurity Number: I'm glad to see this WIRED article showing how many US businesses use this 9-digit centralized number in inappropriate ways. Back towards 1935, critics were told that this "mark of the beast" would never be used as a centralized identifier. History has disproven this. I don't see the need for a single central identity-certifying service... my bank can act as a certfier, my employer can act as a certifier, my affinity groups can act as a certifier. The certifying body could vary with the task that needs identity-certification -- eBay could certify my identity for sales in its sphere, an airline could certify my identity for tasks in its sphere. The advantage here is that there would be multiple facets to my identity, instead of everything being tied together through one central number. Here's the CPSR FAQ on US SSN... that "dealing with non-government entities" section is particularly useful. Similar material is available with different phrasing at Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. I don't see privacy addressed at the SSA's SSN page, but Ron Paul is on the record about these issues.
Horizontal smileys: Most emoticons are read sideways, vertically, like this: ;-) Here's a list of richer emoticons from Japan, like: \(^o^)/ and (-_-)zzzz .
Open Content Network: This is a new type of file-sharing network... they say that only public-domain or open-license materials may be distributed. This seems to imply that there is some sort of checking on materials which enter the network, and that the person who originally enters a file into the network is accountable. If so, then that seems like it may solve copyright as well as security problems. (I'm not sure how Merkle Trees address personal security, because an altered file seems like it could be rehashed, but I've only skimmed this material.) If you've studied this network already then I'd be interested in hearing your observations here, thanks.
E-thrombosis: This New Scientist article is already in syndication, but not widely. The main idea is that those of us who sit at a computer for long periods may be at risk for blood clots in legs. Take a break -- it's a job requirement, walk around for a bit. If you can type with your feet up, all the better. "'People need to check that their chairs do not compress the upper and sides of their legs and that there are no sharp edges to the front of the chair. They should take regular breaks. Five to ten minutes an hour to walk around is sufficient,' Dr Rutherford said."
Slashdotting Wayback: Slashdot ran a story yesterday, " Deploys Macromedia Software Titles", saying that 10,000 "Made With Macromedia" CDs were available for downloading at the Internet Archive -- that the work of independent developers was being redistributed for free. The incoming traffic took the archive down for awhile. I stayed out of the discussion because I was working at home on an article, and besides, lots of other people were talking about it anyway.... ;-)

Actually, last June the good folks at the Internet Archive accepted a list of 10,000 CD-ROM titles that had come through the "Made With Macromedia" program. They also contacted the developers of five of those titles for making the actual contents available on the archive. CD delivery is an important distribution method, both historically and today, and I really appreciate that this list is now publicly available. The content itself is not in distribution, but the slice-in-time view of CD delivery is now public, instead of locked away in our vaults. Bob Tartar has more info, and Brewster Kahle has responded directly to the thread... if you've got additional comments or concerns then you can reach Macromedia staffers directly at (convert to email addy). Thanks!

(btw, this section of the Internet Archive is fascinating... they've really put a lot of work into cataloguing and making available a history of CD-ROM delivery. Now that it's alive and un-Slashdotted again, please take a long around -- great stuff!)
Online store checks email address: The BBC's site reports that David Duxbury had difficulty in purchasing from the Macromedia Online Store because he used an email address from Yahoo. These free email shells have been fronts for fraud in the past, and so the store apparently requires a more traceable email contact. Assuming I've got the details correct here, then the order form will have direct information on it about which types of email accounts aren't suitable for online purchase... my apologies to anyone who got the generic "transaction rejected" message in the meantime.

Tuesday, January 28, 2003

Jolt Awards: Wow, ColdFusion and Contribute both made the finalists. I would still rather have seen Tim Brown get a Super Bowl ring, but this is nice too.
(btw, I've been writing an article today... sorry for the lack of advance warning on a Light Blogging Day.)

Monday, January 27, 2003

Rural connectivity: Great article in San Francisco Chronicle about connecting rural villages in India to the internet. There are no telephone lines, so wireless repeaters are set up. It has already saved lives with weather reports, diagnosis of crop failures, and quicker vaccinations. No foreign guru required -- when people in a villager can talk with peers in other areas they achieve their own benefits. The usual newspaper "but some critics object" line reveals that the main objections include "but they need someone to give them food rather than have them produce it more successfully" and "but they deserve someone else to pay the connection costs" of about US$50/month per village. It's easier to distribute information than commodities now, and it's great to see that such info-distribution makes a real difference in the lives of real people.
What is "a browser"? Dave Hyatt of the Safari team ponders why RSS headline readers and document browsers are different applications. He draws over 50 comments split between "yes it's all 'web'" and "no keep it lean". It's similar to Jason Kottke's discussion about putting task-oriented, webservice-assisted Sherlock-like applications within a document browser (see prior postings).

People seem to like RSS readers for their speed, and then for certain UI conveniences. The speed comes because you're just downloading the data, not the "data+presentation(+logic)" in HTML. There are still drawbacks to doing many simultaneous net requests off a single machine, particularly as that machine goes portable, but the bandwidth requirements are lighter with XML than HTML. A good XML reader may or may not be similar to a good HTML reader... heck, we're still trying to get HTML readers that handle CSS correctly, much less later specifications....

There are a couple of other trends intersecting here. RSS isn't the only XML data we'll be retrieving. As more databases expose themselves as web services, news headlines will be only part of what we'll want to retrieve. This is "more will be getting thinner". But "more will be getting fatter", too... I also suspect we'll be seeing more richer-media content web-accessible, whether digital cameras with IP addresses or video-blogging or live decentralized cam reports or whatever. Right now RSS and web pages have just a bit of a divide between them, so it can be reasonable to picture one app doing it all. But as other needs join this initial set, and as each format increases the complexity of its rendering and UI needs (cf history of HTML), I can't see one app doing it all.

The privacy, persistence and security needs I mentioned still apply. I'm very cautious when anyone can push email at me. I'm a little less cautious when I explicitly drop in at a site. For a personal info-management tool I would want to expose more of myself (choice of feeds, category/keywords, etc). I don't use an "office suite" of email and contacts and surfing, because I don't want all those privileges commingled. Putting everything in one system can be fragile.
Antartica uses Flash? This eWeek article on Verity/Inktomi contains an intriguing mention at the bottom: "Meanwhile, Antarctica shipped the latest version of its Visual Net visual search engine last week, promising users more control of how they view and navigate large information repositories. Chief among the new features in Antarctica's Visual Net 3.0 is the integration of Macromedia Inc.'s Flash Players at the interface level, which will give users more control over how and what information is displayed in the interface. Users are able to configure the Visual Net interface using color, shape and size to bring the most important data to the surface of the content maps so they can spot trends in data faster." I don't see details in the Antartica FAQ, and in fact I don't find any mention of Macromedia on their site. Demos are apparently only available by CD. Antartica was founded by Tim Bray, and the goals sound intriguing... does anyone have concise info on what they're actually doing? Thanks!
Update Jon Udell pointed me to this post by Tim Bray in the W3C's Tag mail-list. It's three screens of text, mostly about whether an URL points to a real place or contains instructions or what, but he mentions that one thing they do is pass XML data to the Macromedia Flash Player for visualization. I'd still like to see a sample though.
Let Robots Walk Free: Until I read this Financial Times article, I hadn't realized that robots were not permitted to walk the streets in Japan. Here in San Francisco we ban Segways, and I don't think we ban robots. But hey, supervisors will need to make their 2004 legislation quotas, maybe we can still catch up.... ;-) "He said his one illicit experiment, which attracted the keen interest of neighbouring children, had already taught him an invaluable lesson. 'When you put robots on the street, kids kick them,' he said. 'We learnt that we have to make these robots more sturdy.'"
[via Cory Doctorow]
Zombie DOS kills community: WIRED reports that DALnet, the largest IRC network, was knocked off by distributed denial-of-service attacks. (Here's a Google cache of their page.) Quotes: "After battling eviction for more than two years, a massive online community has finally been driven from its virtual home... these high-speed networks link unsecured computers that are owned by private individuals. Thus, hackers are able to hijack hundreds or even thousands of them for unfriendly purposes. Using these makeshift virtual armies, hackers can launch a denial-of-service attack on adversaries, real or imagined... Security experts say that users trading files over IRC often unwittingly download Trojan horses that allow hackers to exploit their victims' computers as weapons... 'If they kill all the IRC networks, who do they go after next?'" You've got to trust your programming... if you came here looking for "Macromedia MX cracks and warez" then please read the above article, and see what happens to everyone when you so willingly Obey Alien Orders.
Sapphire blame game: CNET has an interesting investigation of the various types of responsibility for the internet slowdown this past weekend. Some blame Microsoft because their initial software wasn't perfect. Others blame system administrators worldwide for not installing the updates Microsoft recommended. Others blame businesses which can't always afford to have system administrators. Others see it as a general fault of internet society for making it too easy to add new computers to the network, and not quickly locking out problem computers. I try to avoid blame-game stuff myself, instead figuring out what can be done to fix a problem... when everyone is connected to each other like this, then how do you handle people who (whether intentionally or just negligently) cause harm to others...?
New Opera tomorrow: According to CNET, they'll move out of beta and into final release this week. Even though it may have a small presence on Windows, it's good to be familiar with this browser because of the range of platforms it supports, and their speed in implementing new features. Who knows, you may get habituated to mouseless surfing and not go back.
"What are web services?" This Seattle Times story is as good an intro as any, but I still think most explanations use too many words. For me, "web services" boil down to sharing data across servers, without having to hassle the formatting. Instead of scraping data out of an HTML presentation, you have just a nice XML structure. You can call distant methods, sure, but this isn't that different from just calling a different address. The big advantage is in dealing data instead of data+presentation back and forth. If I'm missing something, or if you have a more succinct explanation, then please drop a note in comments here, thanks.
ROI for games: If you work on games or other rich online content for clients, then this Washington Post article may be a good bookmark... Ellen Edwards gives behind-the-scenes numbers on several campaigns that were assisted by web games. Quotes: " the series launch was the highest-rated in the network's history. That's not a bad payoff for a modest investment... Forrester Research, which studies the use of new technologies, projects that advergaming alone will be a billion-dollar-a-year industry by 2005... The fastest-growing segment of the market is women ages 35 to 49 playing at work.., a LifeSaver candy game [uses Shockwave -jd], is consistently getting more than 1 million unique visitors each month. "